By Bart H. Meijer
UTRECHT, Netherlands (Reuters) – A gunman shot dead three people and wounded five on a tram in the Dutch city of Utrecht on Monday and police said they were hunting for a 37-year-old Turkish man after an apparent terrorist attack.
Dutch authorities raised the terrorism threat in Utrecht province to its highest level, schools were told to shut their doors and paramilitary police increased security at airports and other vital infrastructure and also at mosques.
However, Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency, quoting relatives of the gunman, said he had fired at a relative on the tram for “family reasons” and had then shot at others who tried to help her.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte convened crisis talks, saying he was deeply concerned about the incident, which came three days after a lone gunman killed 50 people in mass shootings at two mosques in the city of Christchurch, New Zealand.
“Our country has today been shocked by an attack in Utrecht… A terrorist motive cannot be excluded,” Rutte said in a statement.
“The first reports have led to disbelief and disgust. Innocent people have been struck by violence… We are now doing everything we can to find the perpetrator or perpetrators as soon as possible. That is now our complete focus.”
The mayor of Utrecht, Jan van Zanen, said three people had been killed and nine injured, three of them seriously. Later the number of injured was lowered to five.
Dutch police identified the suspect as Turkish-born Gokmen Tanis. They issued an image of Tanis and warned the public not to approach him. They gave no further details.
With the gunman still at large, Dutch authorities said they had extended the elevated terrorism threat in Utrecht province until 2100 GMT on Monday.
Local broadcaster RTV Utrecht said the suspect had a long history of run-ins with the police for both minor and major crimes, including a shooting in 2013. Police spokesman Joost Lanshage, citing the investigation, declined to comment on the reports that Gokmen had a criminal record.
The shooting took place in Kanaleneiland, a quiet residential district on the outskirts of Utrecht with a large immigrant population.
“It’s frightening that something like this can happen so close to home,” said Omar Rahhou, who said his parents lived on a street cordoned off by police. “These things normally happen far away but this brings it very close, awful.”
Witness Daan Molenaar, who said he had been sitting at the front of the tram when the shooting started, told national broadcaster NOS he did not believe it was a terrorist attack.
“The first thing I thought was, this is some kind of revenge or something, or somebody who’s really mad and grabbed a pistol,” he said.
The streets of Utrecht were emptier than usual and mosques in the city kept their doors closed on Monday, in part due to fears they might become targets following Friday’s mass killings in Christchurch.
Helicopters hovered overhead in the usually tranquil medieval town and police screened off the site where at least one body lay covered near the tram.
Dutch television showed counter-terrorism units surrounding a house in Utrecht, but there was no official confirmation that the gunman might be inside.
Utrecht, the Netherlands’ fourth largest city with a population of around 340,000, is known for its picturesque canals and large student population. Gun killings are rare in Utrecht, as elsewhere in the Netherlands.
(Additional reporting by Toby Sterling and Anthony Deutsch; Writing by Gareth Jones; Editing by Janet Lawrence)